Essay on Feminism in the play, Emily of Emerald hill

“Cross-dressing makes visible what contemporary culture has made invisible: the ‘accomplishment’ of gender” In my essay, I will explore the extent to which this statement is valid, looking particularly at the production of Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill with Ivan Heng in the title role.

Stella Kon is a Singaporean writer. Born in Edinburgh in 1944, she was educated in Singapore and spent her childhood in Oberon, a mansion in Emerald Hill which no longer exists, which she remembers as an idyll of space and serenity – dominated by the matriarchal presence of her grandmother. Even thought she grew up in a Peranakan family, Stella was not brought up to speak the Peranakan dialect, to cook the food or to wear the costume. However, stories of the past, albums of sepia-tinted photos and an awareness of family continuity over many generations are part of her heritage. It was this heritage she drew upon, together with nostalgic memories of her childhood at Oberon, to write the play Emily of Emerald Hill, which garnered her third win in Singapore’s National Playwrighting Competition in 1983.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a one-woman play chronicling the life of a Singapore Nonya, Emily Gan, and her struggles against patriarchy and her sister-in-laws to become The Nonya matriarch who dominates her family, yet in the end finds that she loses what she loves most. Even though Emily is the only character to appear on the stage, a whole host of unseen characters is conjured up through Stella Kon’s skilful writing. Time in the play is fluid and audiences move quickly backwards and forwards, through the various scenes in Emily’s life, where “she has to perform the roles of being a good daughter-in-law, a good mother, a good wife, a good hostess, and a good woman behind the man, manipulating and ambitious” (Chan & Heng, 2004). Many Nonya customs and traditions have been incorporated into the play, making it an interesting and valuable cultural record as well as a compelling drama.

In terms of the play’s form, aesthetics, as well as the interventionist stance within the patriarchal order, particularly in the way the latter communicates meanings as the dominant ideology, we can see that the play falls under the category of feminist theatre. In the paper, “Playful Phoenix”: Feminist Manipulations Of The Gaze In Contemporary Singapore Plays, Dr K. K. Seet brings together the debate over the Western definition of feminist drama:

Megan Terry refers to the “creation of powerful autonomous women characters”. Karen Malpede sees feminist drama as that which depicts “women surviving and creating new human communities out of the wreckage of the past”. Janet Brown labels a play feminist if “women’s struggle for autonomy is the play’s central rhetorical motive”. (Seet, 2000)

Stella Kon’s creation of the powerful central character, Emily, who survives her past (she was abandoned by her mother after her father died) and struggled for autonomy by gaining the favour of her in-laws shows that the play can be read from these feminist points-of-view.

The play could also be seen to have traits from the three dominant feminist positions – liberal, cultural and materialist. On the most basic level, the play can be seen as liberal feminist theatre in the fact that a female playwright had written this one-woman monologue, “allowing women’s historically suppressed voices to be heard on stage” (Schroeder, 1996). The play also has cultural feminist traits as it can be seen to “create both a society and a dramatic form that repudiate patriarchy and the status quo” (Schroeder, 1996) by rejecting the dominant linear narrative discourse, and in turn, realism, with scenes moving backwards and forwards through time. The tripartite structure of realist drama is reminiscence to the male sexual response of a build-up, a climax and a cathartic resolution and the play seeks to subvert this structure with two climaxes, one with Emily’s son, Richard, committing suicide and another with her husband, Keong, refusing to see her before he died. The play does not end with a cathartic resolution either, instead leaving it quite open-ended. Audiences are left wondering if Emily has gone mad recounting the things that have happened in her life. Finally, the materialist feminist approach “disrupts linear narratives to expose the cultural construction of seemingly natural roles like gender … to emphasize the material conditions that promote various oppressions” (Schroeder, 1996). In the rest of the essay, I will be looking at how effective Ivan Heng’s performance of Emily is in echoing this materialist feminist view of gender being an ideological construct.

“Peranakan” is a name given to the earliest Chinese settlers of the Malayan peninsula, and a unique culture influenced by Chinese, Malay and colonial ways. Peranakan men are known as Babas and their womenfolk, Nyonyas. Before World War 2, it was required that males played female roles in the Wayang Peranakan, as Baba Peranakan society frowned upon the very thought of Nyonyas appearing on stage. These men faithfully portrayed roles such as the domineering matriarch, the fragile heroine and the Cantonese domestic help. Although attitudes toward Nyonyas on stage and in society have changed, to this day no play is complete without a female impersonator. In the 2001 staged performance of Emily of Emerald Hill, directed by Krishen Jit, internationally acclaimed multiple award-winning actor Ivan Heng returns as Emily, one of the most well-loved heroines in Singapore theatre history, reviving the tradition of female impersonation in the Wayang Peranakan. I will be basing my observations on a recording of this performance, filmed during one of the performances at Jubilee Hall.

Female impersonation began when “clothing started to take on gendered meanings in cultures” (Schacht & Underwood, 2004). Nowadays, many scholars and critics have claimed that the prevalence of drag in mass culture has diminished its ability to disturb. However, we can argue that there is still value in a cross-dressing performance in highlighting issues of gender. In Richard Niles’ discussion of drag performer Charles Busch, he argues whether he should be considered a drag queen as, unlike other professional drag queens, his performance “is not based on grotesque physicality”, instead using “gestures, line deliveries, and physical stances to suggest female stars of Hollywood’s golden era” (Niles, 2004). I draw parallels between this description of Busch and Heng’s performance of Emily. In a video interview with Heng, he talks about how he prepared for the role by saying: “I have to put on a costume, I have to work on my posture … voice … movements, and the whole vocabulary is build up based on two things – imagination and observation” (Video recording). We see that his interpretation of Emily is less of a traditional drag performance, where exaggerated images of femininity is used as a prop to illicit laughter in the audience, but that of a more psychological one, using “gestures, line deliveries, and physical stances” that he has observed and cultivated in himself, to embody the various types of Nonya characters. According to Elizabeth Grosz (1994), “the mind is rendered equivalent to the masculine and body equivalent to the feminine”. In this sense, the oppression of the feminine by the masculine has justification as the mind is traditionally seen to rule the body. However, going against the Cartesian dualism of looking at the mind and the body as “two distinct, mutually exhaustive substances” (Grosz, 1994), we see Heng’s body influencing his mind. The interview is accompanied by images of him putting on his make-up, wig and doing vocal warm-ups on stage in character. He seems to be mentally transformed into the character as he alters his body by putting on the costume, starting to physicalise the femininity of the character.

Simone de Beauvoir (1973) claims that “one is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman” and this is echoed by Judith Butler (1988) when she says that gender is “an identity instituted through a stylized repetition of acts … in which bodily gestures, movements, and enactments of various kinds constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self.” Since, to be a woman is “to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of “woman”, I feel that what Heng does in his portrayal of Emily is to actually take on the gender of woman by “inducing [sic] the body to become a cultural sign” (Butler, 1988). An anonymous audience member commented that “I expected him to … make fun of women, having the advantage of looking at women from third party point of view, but he didn’t at all, he was very accurate” (Video recording). Butler goes on to say that “the authors of gender become entranced by their own fictions whereby construction compels one’s belief in its necessity and naturalness”. We see that even when out of character and in his everyday clothes, Heng still retains signs of femininity in his talking and behaviour.

However, even though his gender could be argued as female, his sex is still very much male and his performance of Emily is still seen to be a cross-dressing role, which has the power to subvert. By subversion, I am referring to the “ability to foreground gender roles and relations, thereby undermining the received notion of gender’s essentialism” (Niles, 2004). Scenes of alienation occur throughout the play, with Heng breaking off from the role of Emily to portray different male characters like her father or her father-in-law. It was ironic for an audience to see a man perform the roles of mother, wife, and good daughter-in-law, because it makes the roles so much more visible, revealing “the process of gender expectations operating not only on stage but also in the audience itself” (Niles, 2004). Audiences can clearly see the ideological construct of gender in such instances, making visible the oppression of women in the patriarchal system by the dominant male figures. The fact the Heng is a man playing a woman thus makes it impossible to forget that women’s ‘roles’ are male creations, and this is the central focus of the materialist feminist approach to expose the notion that gender is essentially a construct.

Even though I have discussed that Heng’s drag portrayal of Emily is successful in that it can be seen to help further feminist debates, some artistic decisions made during the performance, as well as Heng’s own sexuality and flamboyant personality, served to make sections of the performance seem quite camp. Dyer (1986) describes camp as “a characteristically gay way of handling the values, images and products of the dominant culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialization, theatricalization, and an ambivalent making fun of and out of the serious and respectable”. An instance of camp in the play can be seen where Heng (as Emily) transformed the audience into her sewing class. Audiences sitting in the first rows were arbitrarily forced to be part of the performance because they had sewing kits planted under their chairs, presumably even before the doors were open for seating. He cajoled the ‘victims’ into taking out the sewing kits from under their chairs and even admonished one for exhibiting the Singaporean value of being ‘kiasu’ for having completed most of the quilt. Being a homosexual with a flamboyant personality, Heng’s breaking of the fourth wall by interacting with audiences in their midst drew much laughter for those that were spared from participating. In this way, audiences see Heng’s own personality coming through and they are distracted from the feminist themes that Heng himself was trying so hard to bring across through his nuanced embodiment of the female gender. In comparison, Margaret Chan’s performance of the same scene in the same play (of which I also watched a recording of) felt more subdued and believable, as she never physically broke the fourth wall. Of course, the downside of this version was that audiences passively take in the performance and thus may be unable to identify with the patriarchal oppression that is brought out so well by Heng’s drag performance. However, by breaking the fourth wall, Heng exposed the mechanics of his drag performance and created another world in which “the real becomes unreal, the threatening, unthreatening” (Bronski, 1984). It may be wonderful theater, but this also creates a cabaret drag show atmosphere more suitable for dinner-theater lounge acts. This tone of the performance diminishes the weightier concerns that the play takes to task, and audiences are no longer able to identify with Heng’s character as a woman, but instead see him as a caricature of one. In this way, he can be seen to reify “both women’s subordination and men’s superiority in society and this is obviously anything but subversive” (Schacht & Underwood, 2004).

Another question we might ask is whether the play Emily of Emerald Hill is itself a true feminist text. Even though we have discussed its form, aesthetics, as well as the interventionist stance within the patriarchal order earlier in the essay and have identified it as feminist, we wonder if the character of Emily can be seen as subverting the patriarchal structure in her journey towards the higher society. It is true that we see Emily controlling every aspect of her family; from the dinner functions she has to the lives of her son and husband, but it is precisely that she is dominantly located in the domestic sphere that renders her as unable subverting the patriarchal system but merely being subsumed in it. Also, at the end of the play, she is seen to be left all alone in her old age, with both her son and husband dead. Perhaps this can be seen as a cautionary tale to the women who try to overcome the patriarchal structure, that the people around will disown them eventually.

In conclusion, I feel that even though the play might not have seemed to rest in the feminist discourse as well as one thought it would, and that certain points of Heng’s performance could be seen as camp and distracted the audience from the more important feminist concerns, it was Heng’s performance as a cross-dressing Emily that brought out clearly the notion that the role of women are essentially male creations. Since the alienating image, of the cross-dressing Heng playing the role of Emily, itself works to bring out this idea, perhaps the director Krishen Jit could have downplayed the camp factor, or even remove the flamboyant audience interaction scenes altogether, instead focusing on the male created femininity on stage. The worry that audiences would be sitting there passively taking in the play, like perhaps in the Margaret Chan version, would be largely unfounded as it is obvious that the woman on stage is in fact, a man. On a last note, I must add that since I was viewing the recorded version of the performance, my response might have been different had I actually been at the live performance. Nevertheless, I feel that the recording captured the atmosphere of the theatre and the mood of the performance sufficiently enough for me to give a fairly accurate and detailed analysis of Heng’s performance as Emily in Emily of Emerald Hill.


References and Works Cited

Bronski, M. (1984). Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Boston: South End Press.

Butler, J. (1988). Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist
Theory. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Chan, K. (2004). Cross-Dress for Success: Performing Ivan Heng and Chowee Leow’s “An Occasional Orchid” and Stella Kon’s “Emily of Emerald Hill” on the Singapore Stage. Retrieved from

Chan, K. (Interviewer) & Heng, I. (Interviewee). (2004). Appendix: Drag and the Politics of Identity and Desire in Singapore Theater: A Conversation with Ivan Heng. Retrieved from

Cheng, K. Emily of Emerald Hill, Background to

Emily. [Powerpoint Slide]. Retrieved from Online Web site:’s+Background.ppt

Cheng, K. Emily of Emerald Hill, Background to

The Playwright – Stella Kon. [Powerpoint Slide]. Retrieved from Online Web site:’s+Background.ppt

De Beauvoir, S. (1973). The Second Sex. Vintage Books.

Dyer, R. (1968). Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York: St. Martins Press.

Grosz, E. (1994). Volatile Bodies: Toward a Corporeal Feminism. St. Leonards, N.S.W: Allen & Unwin.

Kon, S. (1989). Emily of Emerald Hill. Macmillan Publishers.

Niles, R. (2004). Wigs, Laughter, and Subversion: Charles Busch and Strategies of Drag Performance. In Schacht, S. P., & Underwood, L. (Eds.), The Drag Queen Anthology, The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators (35-53). Harrington Park Press.

Seet, K. K. (2000). “Playful Phoenix”: Feminist Manipulations Of The Gaze In Contemporary Singapore Plays. Retrieved from

Schacht, S. P., & Underwood, L. (2004). The Drag Queen Anthology, The Absolutely Fabulous but Flawlessly Customary World of Female Impersonators, (Eds.). Harrington Park Press.

Schroeder, P. (1966). The Feminist Possiblities of Dramatic Realism. London: Associated University Press.



About Junyi

Having graduated with a Bachelors in Arts with Honours, I traverse the fluff-covered, sometimes pretentious world of the arts, yet would like to think that I'm down to earth, doing things like sipping hot tea at kopitiams and sitting behind a desk during office hours. This website is a portfolio of the writing that I feel can be "aired in public" (and then some). I would like to one day be a journalist for all things lifestyle. Or a full time singer. Or a world-weary traveler. Or a clown. Feel free to look through and leave your thoughts.
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